Manitobans help each other after storm leaves thousands without power

Stories of neighbours helping one another are emerging after a powerful storm snapped thousands of trees and pulverized the electricity network that connects southern Manitoba.

A quarter-million Manitobans have gone without power for at least some time since the storm dumping wet, heavy snow howled late Thursday and into the next day. Thousands still have not had electricity since Friday. 

At one point, all 13,000 people in Portage la Prairie were left in the dark, and because the city's pump stations need electricity, residents were discouraged from flushing their toilets.

While a devastating snowstorm outside her window knocked out power across southern Manitoba, Selena Lesko found warmth in her cold, dark home from the faint glow of tea light candles.

She didn't have to endure temperatures barely above freezing in her home at Long Plain First Nation, about 20 kilometres southwest of Portage la Prairie, for a fourth consecutive day: she could have taken a shuttle to a hotel or emergency shelter like some of her neighbours.

But Lesko stayed behind as the power outage went on. She wanted to take care of her home, and others. 

"I figured I might as well just stay put — make sure my house is safe, make sure my animals are taken care of, in case anybody else needs anything."

Lesko was making a coffee run for the firefighters and public works staff who stayed behind to make house calls for the people without food, without transportation and without gas to run their generators.

In Lesko's case, she'd had no heat source for four days, besides some candles.

"Right now it's about three degrees [in my home]. I think the highest we've got up to was six degrees," she said.

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"We're keeping warm by using little tea light candles and just layering up. Even sleeping in bed, there's about six, seven blankets — very, very thick," she said, chuckling. 

The outage would be much worse if they were in the midst of winter, Lesko said.

She kept busy Monday doing a grocery run for some of her neighbours.

"I'm going to try to help out where I can."

Elsewhere in Long Plain on Monday, Alex McLellan was volunteering as a gas jockey. 

"We had a couple of vehicles sitting here without any gas here," he said of the situation at the start of the outage, "so I figured my role in this is very important." 

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There was no shortage of Good Samaritans in Winnipeg as well, where crews are cleaning up the many trees that collapsed from the storm's wrath. 

Jamie Michaels was doing his part along Portage Avenue with a chainsaw in his grip. He and his friend spent their Thanksgiving cleaning up trees that littered the ground.

"I think the city's got bigger fish to fry, so we're happy to help out in a small way," he said.

Despite the goodwill among many Manitobans, people still living without power are becoming frustrated.

Frustration on phone

Kameron Blight, reeve of the rural municipality of Portage, said he hadn't heard from many of his neighbours until early Monday morning, when people who have been powerless for four days learned they may have to wait seven to 10 days for restoration.

His municipality, outside Portage la Prairie, is among the hardest hit by the storm. There were 2,900 customers without power on Monday evening.

They're frustrated, Blight said.

"They just want to know — they want to know what they're up against."

Some of the phone calls he got from residents were rather blunt, he said on Monday, "but I understand it."

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"There have been without heat for quite some time. The city of Portage had no power until basically just late yesterday for portions of it, so getting gasoline was difficult to run generators."

Blight said one of the municipality's backup generators was stolen. The RM of Portage is now under a boil water advisory as a result. 

Grocery stores cannot keep their food cold, he said, and farmers are frustrated that their crops weren't harvested in time.

"It's just catastrophic," Blight said. "It's impacting so many different people in different ways."

Manitoba Hydro officials said the storm's impact is unprecedented. They initially thought 1,000 wooden poles were damaged by the snowstorm in the Portage area, but Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen estimates it's closer to 2,000 wooden poles, and he isn't counting the steel transmission lines.

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"We understand completely the hardships that this has placed on families, on Indigenous communities, on businesses, on the ag community," Owen said. "We're doing everything we can." 

Blight said both Hydro workers and his neighbours are doing the best they can in an unenviable situation.

"People are resilient here, and Manitobans are great people, stepping up and supporting each other, so people are getting through it."